The past year has been 30-year-old Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum’s biggest to date. He’s played universities, festivals and clubs all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe and the Middle East, promoting his debut album SyrianamericanA. Since March, Offendum has played 10 different charity events for Syria in the U.S. and Europe that have raised several hundred thousand dollars of aid money for those suffering as a result of the current uprisings in his parents’ homeland (Offendum himself was born in Saudi Arabia and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was a kid).
And while his pro-revolution stance has brought positive feedback, with many fans at his shows telling him they’ll see him “next year in Syria, inshallah,” others have suggested he’s not doing enough (“You should have written 15 songs about Syria by now”). He’s also faced threats from supporters of the Syrian regime, ranging from the less-than-scary “Don’t you dare release this song” to the seriously intimidating “We should have killed you all in 1982,” a reference to a government-led massacre in Offendum’s father’s hometown of Hamah. Offendum has learned he’s now officially persona non grata in Syria – “Not something I’m surprised by, nor something that I want to test,” he says.
I first met Offendum back in March 2011, not long after the release of “#Jan25,” a collaboration with Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcycist, honoring the courage of the Tunisian and Egyptian protestors who kickstarted the Arab Spring. “If it can happen in Egypt, it can happen anywhere,” he told me at the time. But he hadn’t anticipated that his own people would soon attempt to overthrow Bashar Al Assad.
“I can’t lie, when I first saw footage and heard the Syrian accent [coming from those] being attacked [by security forces] and from the chanting, it struck me differently than it did in Egypt and Tunisia. It hit a lot closer to home,” Offendum says. But concern for those family members still living in Syria has meant the rapper has had, on occasion, to hold his tongue. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “I’m trying to be vocal, and careful at the same time.” He adds that Assad loyalists can be found everywhere, reporting back to Syria on the local diaspora communities. “I’m sure Syrian secret police have shown up at my concerts; sometimes I’m asked way too many detailed questions.”
His fears are not just based on speculation. He cites the example of Ibrahim Qashoush, the singer (and originator of the popular chant “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” [Come on Bashar, Time to Leave]) who was killed by Syrian security forces and had his vocal cords ripped out.
In spite of the threats he had received, Offendum decided to release “#Syria” on March 17th this year (the anniversary of the uprising in Syria). “I waited until my immediate family gave their blessings - both those inside and outside,” he explains. That same day, he performed the track at a rally for Syria in front of the White House.
“#Syria,” with its chorus of “Alsha3b yureed isqaa6 al-nitham” [The people want to overthrow the regime] quickly gained over 100,000 views on YouTube.
“The reception was overwhelmingly positive despite the haters. I got more support than I lost,” he says. “You can’t please everybody. I am doing this not just to empower people with my messages, I am also empowering myself and [using] the therapy that is involved in making music.” His next album, he says, has been stalled by the Syrian uprising. “The emotional toll that this has taken on me, my family and my community will be one of the themes I explore on the next record,” he adds. “I am happy to stand on stage and present a confident, strong face to inspire people, but when I am constantly reminded of the bloodshed, I admit I hit a wall some days myself.”
At Songs for Syria in New York on May 31st (which, together with an event in Boston two days later, raised $140,000), Offendum explains why he’s focusing on so many charity events. “Writing and putting the message out there is great,” he says. “But to use my art to help raise so much humanitarian aid is especially gratifying.”
It seems the pride is mutual. A group of activists inside Syria has created stamps commemorating the Syrian revolution. On one, Offendum is pictured side by side with Qashoush.
Before an audience of Americans of Arab origin, Offendum takes the stage. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be here tonight,” he says. “I have performed at fundraising events for other humanitarian causes for 10 years, and now it seems I have come full circle performing at Syrian events.”
He starts rapping his satirical track “Arab Superhero,” just one of his earlier songs that has taken on a new meaning over the past 18 months.
“I wrote ‘Superhero’ from a pretty cynical state: The only way we could solve these problems, which I had heard about my whole life, was if a superhero came flying out of the sky,” he explains after the show. “Lo and behold, the superhero was actually the youth of the Arab world.”